Netanyahu’s coalition partner resigns over money laundering charges

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Israel’s powerful foreign minister resigned yesterday, a day after he was indicted for breach of trust by the attorney general.

In a statement, Avigdor Lieberman said he was innocent of all charges and said he could return to politics in time for national elections in January if cleared or if a plea bargain was reached.

“Even though I know I did not break any law… I have decided to resign as foreign minister and deputy prime minister,” Mr Lieberman said. “After 16 years of investigations against me I can end this issue quickly without delay and completely clear my name,” he added.

He said he had made his decision in consultation with his lawyers and campaign team.

“I am doing this because I am convinced that Israel’s citizens should be able to go to the polls after this matter has been settled … and I can continue to serve Israel as part of a strong united leadership that will cope with the security, economic and political challenges it faces,” he said.

Mr Lieberman was charged on Thursday with breach of trust in a fraud and money-laundering case.

The Russian-born politician is head of Yisrael Beitenu, an ultra-nationalist party that is especially popular with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. With a tough-talking message that has questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority, sharply criticised the Palestinians and confronted Israel’s foreign critics, he has at times alienated Israel’s allies while becoming an influential voice in Israeli politics.

Yisrael Beitenu and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the 22 January elections. Polls have predicted the list would be by far the largest bloc in parliament and lead a new coalition government.

Mr Netanyahu is tipped to win the premiership, but Mr Lieberman’s departure will have a major impact on negotiations to build a coalition. As Yisrael Beitenu’s founder, he is a key vote winner. His resignation could mean Mr Netanyahu would be stuck with hodge-podge of MPs with little popular appeal.